It is a challenge that has caused headaches for planners and politicians for generations – how do you improve transport links between Sheffield and Manchester without damaging one of England’s most important natural assets, the Peak District?
The issue is back in the headlines once again following the recent publication of the One North report, which has suggested billions of pounds worth of transport improvements are needed in the north of England.
The report, which has the backing of Chancellor George Osborne, suggests one of the best ways of connecting key northern cities would be the creation of a new high-speed rail link, dubbed HS3, which would potentially run through the Peak District.
While road links between the two cities are currently on the slow side, with the 40-mile journey taking more than an hour to complete, the report has said ‘environmental constraints’ mean it is unlikely the Highways Agency would back the building of a new road.
But the outgoing chief executive of the Peak District National Park Authority has said transport bosses should consider whether a new road or rail tunnel could be the answer to their problems.
Jim Dixon, who is leaving his post at the end of the year after 11 years in the role, said the idea is likely to be very expensive but could have long-term benefits by improving journey times between the two cities, as well as helping the natural environment in the Peak District by keeping traffic underground.
He said more detail would be needed on the specific route of the planned HS3 line, which would be designed to connect up major northern cities such as Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.
“It is a high-level report and it doesn’t go into a lot of detail so it is difficult to draw strong conclusions about where the project would be,” he said.
“What we need to do is to work with the Department for Transport and the city regions to understand more about the detail of what the plans are. But there aren’t many options when you start looking at major rail routes between Sheffield and Manchester and Manchester and Leeds.”
He said the old Woodhead railway line route is likely to come under the consideration of HS3 planners.
“It does create the potential of a very high-quality railway line between Manchester and Sheffield and on to Leeds and the North as well,” he said.
“Whoever is going to start the detailed planning of HS3 will need to consider that route. Would we as a national park authority support that route? It is very difficult to say.
“That whole valley is dominated by the A628.
“It is feasible you could have a net benefit to the National Park, particularly if that route was tunnelled through all or part of the National Park.
“If you want big economic benefits you would have to have a fast, flat and straight railway.
“If you want to go city centre to city centre, there is an awful lot of Sheffield to get through, there is an awful lot of Manchester to get through. Using existing railway routes and patching them together would not work.
“A really good fast train line could get you from Manchester to Sheffield in 20 minutes. But the cost of doing that through a tunnel is going to be very, very large and I don’t know what the economic benefits would be.”
He said a tunnel idea may also be worth considering when it comes to potential road improvements between the two cities, but added the economic benefits would have to be ‘very large’ to justify the plans.
“The cost of doing that would be very, very large. It would be a great outcome but is the nation going to pay £5 to £10 billion? I don’t think so.
“But the A628 is a really clogged-up road. Apparently, one day in every 11 it is closed because of snow or an accident. That is a huge proportion.”
He said while the idea would undoubtedly be costly ‘a decent road or rail tunnel through the Peak District’ is an idea that needs to be looked at because of its potential long-term benefits.
While HS3 is decades away from coming to fruition, there are already more immediate expansion plans for the Hope Valley railway line under Network Rail’s £600 million Northern Hub proposals.
New sections of railway could be built in the Dore and Grindleford areas to allow passenger services to overtake slower-moving freight and stopping passenger trains.
It is hoped the work, which could begin in 2016, would allow extra trains to run more quickly between the two cities.
But an original proposal to run one of the new sections of railway through woodland on the National Trust’s Longshaw Estate near Grindleford has been scrapped after concerns from environmentalists, with a new location being sought.
The idea of electrifying the route between Sheffield and Manchester is also under consideration, with a joint Department for Transport and Network Rail taskforce currently examining the possibility of whether the idea is feasible.
Mr Dixon said while any extra work would have to be proceeded with carefully, improvements to the Hope Valley line were not opposed by Peak District bosses.
“There is already a railway line and the tunnels are there,” he said.
“We have already broadly supported the Northern Hub proposals to improve the Hope Valley line.
“The passing loop is going to have a particular impact somewhere and we are still in discussion about that. But the principle is one we would support.
“Anywhere along the alignment along Hope Valley has the risk of causing damage to the National Park. Equally, it is a good thing to encourage freight and visitors to use the train.
“It is a balance. In principle, we would support improvements to the Hope Valley line subject to the detail being right. We don’t know what the plan is and there are options there to have the passing loops outside the National Park.”
Mr Dixon said he was sympathetic to those making efforts to improve transport links in the region.
“I don’t think there is anyone in Whitehall trying to concrete over the National Park but the transport schemes for this part of the world are quite tricky.
“You have got existing cities and adding some super-duper transport links is going to have a big impact with them as well as the national parks.”